Stefan Lanka is a German biologist with a long history of pseudoscientific outbursts, including a denial that the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, “exists at all.”
In November 2011 he put his money where his mouth is by offering 100,000 euros (about $106,000) to anyone who could prove that the measles virus exists. His position is that the disease is “a psychosomatic illness” caused by “traumatic separations."
The challenge was taken up by David Bardens, a German doctor who compiled evidence from medical journals proving the disease’s viral cause. When Lanka rejected the evidence, Bardens sued. Last week a German court found Bardens’ evidence persuasive and ordered Lanka to pay. He says he’ll appeal.
The case would have the flavor of a legal cabaret act if not for the seriousness of the ongoing measles epidemic in the U.S. and Europe, and Lanka’s pathological approach to the issue. Steven Novella of Yale Medical School writes that challenges like Lanka’s usually are “pure publicity stunts--they sound grandiose but typically are framed in such a way that the one issuing the challenge can wiggle out of ever having to pay. They are rigged from the beginning, mainly by not spelling out what kind of evidence would meet the challenge.” Novella reckons that “Lanka got a little sloppy."
Indeed, the phenomenon of cranks blowing up their own case in court is a long one. The most famous episode involves Oscar Wilde, who in 1895 filed a libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, for publicly calling him a “somdomite.” Queensberry defended the case in the only way possible, by proving Wilde was a homosexual. The outcome left Wilde bankrupt, and led eventually to his imprisonment and exile.
Unlike the Wilde-Queensberry lawsuit, the pseudo-debate over measles triggered by Lanka is no historical footnote. Great Britain is still grappling with a plunge in measles vaccination rates traceable to the fraudulent work of disgraced Dr. Andrew Wakefield, which purported to show a link between the vaccine and autism. Authorities in Lanka’s home country of Germany, which by late February had recorded a spike of 574 measles cases since October, are considering making vaccination compulsory.
In the U.S., the measles outbreak that was linked early on to pre-Christmas visits to Disneyland continues to expand. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated its magnitude last week at 176 cases in 17 states. That figure is certainly conservative, as it counts only 118 cases from California, where the state Department of Public Health places the latest figure at 133. Most victims were unvaccinated.